Areopagitica (Milton)

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
Milton, John. Areopagitica.

This isn’t as simple as “freedom of the press” or “free speech.” Parliament originally said “you can’t publish anything without our approval.” That is going too far, and Milton was correct to protest it. Of course, Milton’s protest goes far beyond a legitimate critique of Parliament. He argues, however, for absolute freedom of the press.

Milton begins his argument saying censorship won’t stop scandalous books. That’s true.

Reasoning by analogy, Milton says killing a book is akin to murder because books have “the potency of life.” As man the image-bearer has reason, and such a killing is murder, so whoever kills a book, kills reason. Here is where that argument fails: while I have never read 50 Shades of Grey, I have seen excerpts. The author cannot write a coherent sentence; therefore, that book lacks reason. Therefore, burning that book doesn’t harm reason.

Milton begins a historical survey where he shows that in ancient times, Christian authors used heathen works. That’s true, but Milton has shifted his argument when no one was watching: what are we censoring and why would that be bad? When Plato speaks of the objectivity of truth, he is not causing a public scandal (well, at least not to us). When de Sade speaks of torturing women, he is.

And while some of what Milton writes in this treatise is wrong, he does give us a few wonderful lines: “Our English, the language of men, ever famous and foremost in the achievements of liberty.”

I suppose we need to make a distinction. Milton is opposing the type of censorship which must approve of every book before it sees the light of day. That is obviously impossible in today’s world. However, that is not the same thing as a censor removing and censoring a scandalous work after it has seen the light of day.

Milton’s strongest argument is his survey of church history and how the fathers used heathen works. Further, Milton has no problem with private citizens burning scandalous works, such as the magic texts in Ephesus.

Milton’s argument again shifts gears. He “cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue” that is never exercised. While modern libertines might use Milton’s arguments today, they reject his worldview. Milton wanted free speech in the context of disciplined virtue. I can certainly approve of that. He illustrates with an appeal to Spenser, whom he thinks “a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.”

He now moves to dangerous waters: God is bounteous to us to further the trial of virtue and the exercise of truth.

He says, “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple,” the implication’s being truth will win. What is unsaid is Milton’s premise that this only applies to a virtuous people, and that is not necessarily a given.


Puritanboard Commissioner
Required reading when I was in Journalism school many decades ago.

More recent graduates seem to prefer Goebbels to Milton.


Puritan Board Doctor
This was assigned reading in the Catholic High School I attended, barely 20 years after Rome dispensed with their "banned books" list. But they had long abandoned that kind of thing. And the teacher was a liberal Protestant, and the school really wasn't very Catholic either other than occasional Mass and required religion classes that didn't go into a whole lot of detail with regard to a defense of their doctrines. Thus, I don't recall any substantial rebuttal of Milton in the class.
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